Think recycling isn’t enough to make a difference? Try a few big, macho ways of helping with the environment instead.
I have been fascinated by research that suggests that women and men think about and care about environmental issues differently. According to what I’ve read, women put their energy into doing the small, day-to-day tactical stuff—they are careful to always recycle, shut off the lights, don’t sit in an idling car, carry in their own shopping bags at the grocery store. The belief embraced by those who go this route is that a small amount of actions—all the time, by everyone concerned—will actually make a difference when it all adds up. For women, then, environmental issues become a lifestyle choice: a small series of checklists to be thought about and acted on throughout the day. “Brush your teeth, don’t let the tap run, put on lipstick, recycle that carton, make the kids lunch, use the re-usable lunch bags. Don’t print that email whatever you do.” Over time, all those actions become second nature, akin to counting calories or being vigilant about where a young child is all the time. It requires a certain consciousness, but once you’ve made the commitment, it is just something you do.
Men, the thinking goes, don’t think about the environment that way. For the most part, men would like to do something big and move on. Install solar panels; put in an energy efficient furnace. Trade in the old gas-guzzler for a zippy new high-mpg baby. Think about it once, do something that gets real results, be done with it. It’s not that men can’t intellectually grasp a statistic like “producing new plastic products from recycled materials uses two-thirds less energy than making products from raw materials and reduces the demand for fossil fuels.” It’s that when they have an empty plastic Gatorade bottle in their hands with no recycling bin in sight, they’d rather toss it into the trash and go install some storm windows instead.
Men get a bad rap, as we’re apt to point out here at The Good Men Project. You could look at the above insights and say, “See, women think about the environment all the time. They care more. They are obviously the only ones who can save Mother Earth.”
But an equally valid interpretation would be that men are the ones who are actually taking the large actions that have an impact.
So, as a challenge to myself, I set out to “Think Like a Man” about the environment. What actions could we, as concerned citizens, as men, (and as women) do that would have a real, long-term, sustainable impact? What might get us beyond thinking about the environment as more than recycling our paper and plastic?
1. Get a groundswell going around stores that have zero packaging. That’s right, zero. Instead of wasting time using one less plastic bag, don’t use anything ever again. There’s a store in England, Unpackaged, that does just that. And now, opening in Austin Texas, is In.gredients—the first package-free and zero waste grocery store in the United States. As Good, Inc. describes it: “It’s as if the specialty bulk food section rebelled and took over the rest of a traditional grocery store. In.gredients will replace unhealthy, overpackaged junk with local, organic, and natural foods, and moonlight as a community center with cooking classes, gardening workshops, and art shows on the side.”
Make stores like that an economic reality by showing that there’s a viable market for them. I honestly don’t blame you if you just don’t want to think about whether that more expensive brand of paper towels has 20% post-consumer waste, or if just this once you could put your items into plastic bag and guiltily sneak out the door. Instead, wouldn’t you want to know that when you walked into a store you could do no wrong.
2. Help your city become a city of bicyclists. There are cities I’ve been to where bicyclists rule. Bicyclists on the road are treated like gold. They have the right of way. They have the good lanes, the signals. There are places to store bikes, rent pikes, borrow bikes. Take this to the next level—make it safe for bicyclists, make it fun for bicyclists, make it profitable for bicyclists.
According to the EPA, Driving a private car is probably a typical citizen’s most “polluting” daily activity. Every time we bike instead of drive, we save roughly 2.5 pounds of carbon emissions from polluting our planet. Comparatively, taking the subway save .48 pounds per trip.
Creating a city of bicyclists is not blue sky.
In Groningen, a city in The Netherlands, 57% of its inhabitants travel by bicycle.The city simply made it a priority to adapt to the wishes of those who want to get around without a car. How they did it is both simple and brilliant. They created a large, pedestrianised zone in the center of the city. They worked their way out, creating safe and accessible walking and bike paths that progressively radiated out from that hub. By continuing to favor active transportation around the center, they then “filtered out” cars by reducing the number of streets that run through the center. Certain streets became discontinuous for cars, and instead connected to a network of pedestrian and bike paths which build the network of bike paths and walkways outward. In addition, these paths go through public squares and open spaces increasing the enjoyment of every trip.
Help your city become one of those. If it can be done in one city, it can be done in any city. Lobby for it, talk about it, generate enthusiasm for it. Think of economic incentives—what if your place of work gave bonuses for biking instead of driving?
The next time there’s an election, get it on the agenda. Better yet, run for office yourself with that as the platform. At least the issue will get noticed.
In the example above, 96,000 bicyclists reduce emissions by 242,000 lbs per day, or 88 million lbs of carbon emissions a year. That has an impact.
Hate biking? Then make one simple, easy decision—next time you buy a car, get the most energy efficient model you can. And use it as little as possible.
4. Oh, about those storm windows. Reducing our dependence on fossil fuels starts with using less of it. Better windows, less oil. But here’s a story of someone who took it even further: Dick Cadwgan and his partner Frank Mundo run a company up in Maine that makes easily installable, removable, fuel-saving window inserts. First the math: Dicks company charges only for materials, a cost of about $10 per insert. Each insert reduces the heat lost through the windows by at least half, especially in older, medium-quality windows. With heating oil at over $3.50 per gallon, the savings per window ends up being about $20 over the course of a heating season. Dick estimates the amount of money put back into the Maine economy by a just one small team of volunteers building and installing these windows is about $50,000 dollars over the life of the window insert. This year, the company, Window Dressers, will have five such teams of workers. Dick runs this company as a non-profit—all volunteer teams of people. People pay only for the cost of materials, but those who can afford it often write checks for an extra $100—“so that if someone can’t afford it, Dick, you can help them anyway.” When I asked Dick why he would do something like this—run an all volunteer army of people who all winter long help people get their houses to be more energy efficient, he laughed and said, “Well, there’s not much else to do in the winter in Maine.” It’s an entrepreneurial, inventive, social way, hands-on way to help decrease our dependence on fossil fuels. Contact Dick at email@example.com to learn more.
5. Think before you eat. Specifically, stop eating processed foods. For extra points, eat less meat and when you do eat meat, choose meat that was raised sustainably instead of in a factory farm.
You can make big, sweeping changes to your diet overnight—which can lead to big sweeping changes in the food chain. Here’s the deal: If you eat food that comes in a package, chances are you’re eating high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Regular old corn is one of the most genetically modified conventional crops; and mercury, a toxic production by-product has been found in many samples of HFCS and the products that contain it. Because HFCS is cheaper than other sweeteners and used as a preservative, it lurks everywhere from sodas to cereals to snack bars you might otherwise consider healthy. And that same, regular old corn is used to fatten up a beef steer more quickly than pasture does—at a cost to ourselves and cattle. The cows haven’t evolved to digest corn, and are therefore pre-emptively fed antibiotics to offset the stresses caused by their unnatural diet. As for the effect on the environment? A commonly quoted statistic, according to Practically Green, is that a meal of fruits, vegetables, and grains generates 24 times less greenhouse gas emissions than 6 ounces of conventionally raised beef. Not to mention that eating fresh produce helps local farms become more sustainable.
Simply substitute locally grown produce for almost anything else you can think of eating. Give it two weeks to become a habit. Done. Big. Easy. Manly. You’ll make an impact, feel better almost immediately, and you’ll be in better shape to help install those storm windows.
5. Help lobby for an “Environmentalists Without Borders” organization, modeled after the highly successful “Doctors Without Borders.”
Let’s face it—didn’t you get the feeling that when the BP oil spill happened that nobody knew what to do? How is that possible? How is it possible to not be able to anticipate that level of catastrophe and have no emergency response plan when it does happen? Weeks into the spill, I remember reading: “This may not be able to be solved.”
When I saw the pictures and infographics of the depth of the disaster, I couldn’t help but think that it must have surely erased all the good I had done by not using either paper OR plastic at the supermarket. The benefits of all of the thousands of times I recycled seemed to fly up in the air with every gush of oil.
The way the Doctors Without Borders model works is this. When catastrophe strikes, Doctors without Borders mobilizes and dispatches doctors to the disaster scene immediately. Oftentimes, they are among the first on the scene. They are known for being efficient, organized, action-oriented, and immediately helpful.
A similar sort of Environmentalists without Borders could have specialized teams of engineers, foremen, water specialists, animal rescue specialists, trained by Doctors without Borders mobilizers that volunteer to immediately go to the scene of an environmental disaster and help solve the problem. We need an immediate, viable, quick-response plan in place before the next disaster takes place. Because it will.
Too grand a plan for you? Start instead by having a few passionate people in your network who care about environmental issues. And listen to them.
There. 5 things you can do that will have the following results:
1.) Reduce emissions in a city by 88 million pounds of carbon emissions a year
2.) Reduce your energy bill, save gallons of oil, pour money back into the local economy, have hand crafted window inserts.
3.) Cut packaging to zero so that you never have to worry about it again.
4.) Increase your personal health while helping improve the crop cycle.
5.) Become a part of a network of heroes for when disaster does strike.
Thinking about the environment this way—it’s is no longer an ongoing daily chore. Many of the things above are as simple as making one simple decision—like buying a fuel-efficient car or deciding to stop eating processed foods. For others, it’s taking a series of big, important actions that will change your life, and the lives of your family and community—for the better. And help Father Planet right along with them.
—photo by SMcGarnigle / Flickr